Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Man Who Said Everything Twice

“Not much traffic today.” His wife nods, and they continue on. He lights a cigarette. “Nope. Not much traffic.” As their destination comes into view, she says nothing. He clears his throat. “Nice flat lake.” She turns away from him, toward the window, as he repeats, “Nice flat lake.”

Irritating as this man is, she probably won’t leave him for this reason alone. But if this pattern materializes in your novel, your reader will likely leave you.

Most writers know that they mustn’t repeat. So why do they?

~ Metaphorical throat clearing

Saying it again resembles “um” or “er” in conversation. Maybe details or events occurred twice in the first draft and were never deleted. It’s mostly habit—and you can break it.

~ Schooling

Over and over, writers heard: introduce what you’ll say, develop what you introduced, summarize what you said. This makes sense for teaching and learning. Is that what novels are about?

~ Distrust of the reader

This one is the most powerful. Good writers are nearly always insecure, comparing themselves to novelists they love and feeling they fall short. Very short. Concern that the metaphor is shaky, the subtext too subtle, or theme too understated, such writers clarify. Usually, though, they merely repeat what readers already absorbed.

What do writers repeat?

* General/specific

You know. First you comment on all dogs, then on individual breeds. You could also reverse the order to specific, then general. But don’t.

* Metaphor and explanation

If the metaphor can’t communicate without explanation, it’s not one you want.

* Transition

Yes, you must link each detail or idea or moment to the next. But, for example, don’t link each detail or idea or moment to the next by repeating the whole thing!

* Recent events

Never bring other characters up to date by repeating what readers already know. Hint. Condense.

How do you handle the repetition problem? You already know. About the lake and the traffic.

Tip: Once is enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

It’s Not a Dream!

Fiction is neither as long-winded, random, or forgettable as the scraps of stories that visit us during the night.  The novel’s achievement starts with the creation process that John Gardner describes:
In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. 
This is narrative at its happiest and best—writing that gives readers a  world more dramatic, realistic and moral than daily routine. But the boundaries of this world are fragile. In fact, as Gardner points out, “one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”

Those distractions come in many shapes and sizes, but the other kind of dreaming goes a long way toward explaining them.

~ Cliché.

If you’re gifted enough, of course it’s possible to write anything. But, for the most part, any version of “Henrietta woke, relieved that it was only a dream” won’t work. Dreams may be messages to the dreamer, but rarely to anyone else. If you want your novel to delight others, everything must seem new, starting with the plot and ending with the details capturing it. Cliches like waking from a bad dream? That is a bad dream. 

~ Grounding

Dreams let us fly out windows, land in foreign countries without deplaning, simultaneously chat with former lovers and elementary school teachers. If there’s anything fun about dreams, that’s probably it. But readers demand a fictional dream that, however invisibly, explains arrivals, departures, changes of location, and everything else that makes any world outside a dream clear, logical, sensible, and compelling. 

~ Credibility

In your nightmare, your patient and adoring Mama turns on you for no reason, viciously humiliating you in front of every teacher you encountered in your entire life. No wonder you can’t wait to wake up! But the point is that fiction, unlike dream, requires motive and causality. It’s logically true to itself. Anything else shatters the fictional dream that Gardner describes.

~ Pace

Often when we narrate our dreams (or are forced to hear someone else’s), events and details emerge with agonizing slowness. Trivia receives meticulous tedium, while grounding rarely arrives at all. In contrast, novels need momentum and context. Without those, readers doze off, blissfully escaping to the other kind of dream.

Tip: Dreaming is the first step for many writers. But it shouldn’t be the last.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bridge It

San Francisco weather often hides part of the Golden Gate Bridge. Without the mid-portion, it resembles two ends of a structure—with only heavy mist in between. Omit the transitions in fiction, and readers might feel as if only mist joins one sentence to the next. With an important exception. California fog can seem mysterious and romantic, whereas two disconnected ideas or sentences or paragraphs are anything but.

How often do fiction readers need a bridge? Every time they sense a shift, and that’s in the reader’s mind—not the writer’s. Shifts include focus, time, space, speaker, mood, emotion, scene, or verb tense. And lack of connection isn’t among the surprises readers enjoy.

Tip: What seems linked to the writer doesn’t always seem linked to the reader.

Because most writers live with their story world until every relationship seems obvious. So those crucial transitions joining one observation or moment to the next often go missing. 

Here’s an example: 
Leaning back with a sigh, Abby surveyed everything she loved about the living room: white carpet versus drapes in a slightly different ivory tint, Danish modern furniture, hand-blown glass artfully catching the light in various corners.     Though her husband had only black socks, they always looked mismatched.
Whoops. How did we get from interior design to hubby Bill’s habits? For the writer, this might seem crystal-clear. The character muses on order and taste and how differing hues complement each other, unlike her husband’s mismated footwear. Abby might resent his slovenliness contrasting with her taste, which she clearly admires. Perhaps she wonders why she likes snow-white with ivory, but not brand-new black with three-years-old black. 

And, in fact, developing any of those would clarify why the passage abruptly shifted from decor to laundry. The crucial component you accidentally omit from the page perplexes readers. Huh?

Remedies exist:

~ Notice, even if you don’t want to fix this until later.

Consider capitalizing markers like LETTING HER MIND WANDER, or LATER THAT EVENING.  This reminds that you need to improve this temporary transition.

~ Collect transitions in your daily world.

Store effective links from what you read, hear, and see. This becomes part of noticing.

~ Identify the connections you thought of but never included.

This smooths the way while adding causality and suspense.

Let readers view the entire bridge—without something missing in the middle.